Derick Hingle/USA TODAY Sports
New Orleans Saints Writer
When football fans think of the toughest rivalries in the NFL they generally think of the Bears and the Packers, Browns and Bengals, “Manning vs Brady” and a few more well known rivalries. These are the ones that most commonly get brought up at the local sports bar or are discussed on national television every week. However, I’d like to introduce to people a rivalry that is just as heated, but only recently starting to get the recognition it truly deserves. The Saints and Falcons possess both the history and on field tenacity that is worth talking about.
The Packers and Bears are both very old, and very noteworthy, franchises that have had success as well as a passionate rivalry. Every NFL rivalry gets based off this gold (and green) standard that has left multiple black and blue (and orange) bruises in both players and fans. Both franchises I want to talk about (Falcons and Saints) come from the opposite ends of the spectrum.
Both Packers and Bears franchises are noted winners. One team even has the coveted Lombardi trophy named after their coach. The Falcons and Saints were historically bad for most of their history. They were perennial losers, both of them, with a few exceptions here and there. While the Packers and Bears (though much older franchises, by about 40 years) have combined for 22 championships, the Falcons and Saints both have combined for 1. The lone championship being in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints won the Superbowl. However, like the Packers and Bears of the north, the Saints and Falcons have had close games and fierce competition down in the south. Each year, no matter the overall record of the team, you’re guaranteed to get a fight that lasts the entire game.
47-43 is where we find ourselves as of 12:00 pm on the ninth day of April, 2014. No, that isn’t a football score, it is the all time wins matchup between these two teams. The Falcons have the lead with 47 wins. (A historical tidbit, the Falcons won every game from 1969 to 1973 and from 1995 to 1999). More recently, the Saints under Sean Payton have been the more dominant team. Since 2006 (we’ll get into the significance of that year more a little later) the Saints are 13-3 against their rivals in Atlanta. 47-43 is extremely close in terms of competitiveness. The Packers and Bears are similar in terms of percentages with their record sitting at 93-89-6(ties).
Both clubs were expansion franchises birthed at almost the same time. Being only one year apart, the rivalry has become more of a sibling one than a sporting battle. New Orleans was awarded a franchise due to political backing in congress that allowed a merger between the AFL and NFL. Atlanta was awarded a franchise due to the wealth and power of Rankin Smith. To the ire of both teams, they would end up in the NFC West in 1970(though geographically this made little sense, but you must understand where the NFL was at the time) and were forced to compete against the might and dominance of the Rams and 49ers. Early on, it seemed the teams were destined for heartache and little success. They did not (or did, depending on how you look at it) disappoint.
The Saints (or, as older Falcons fans might know them as, the Aints) did not post a winning record until 1987. Atlanta, on the other hand, posted a winning record in 1973 and made the playoffs in 1978. The Falcons fared better against juggernauts Los Angelas and San Francisco than their southern brethren down in New Orleans.
Even with their early struggles in the 70s and most of the 80s, the rivalry was still strong and fun to watch. The Falcons were the more dominant team in the early stages of both franchises (and even handed the Saints their worst historic loss in a 62-7 blowout in New Orleans in 73′). The rivalry began to even out towards the end of the 70s and into the 80s and we started to see more of a taste of what was to come. Knock-out drag-out football between rivals.
In the late 80s and into the 90s, things took a change (positive ones) for both teams. The Saints’ had a dominating defense. The infamous “Dome Patrol” was the greatest Linebacking Corp of all time, while the Falcons would make their first Superbowl appearance later in the 90s decade. Both the Saints and Falcons made the playoffs multiple times during the 90s with the Falcons reaching the ultimate goal, the Superbowl, in 1998.
Now, many of you are probably thinking, I like all of this history, but what does it have to do with the rivalry? You have to know where these teams come from to appreciate where they are now. For example, take the 1991 season. Both the Saints and Falcons make the playoffs. The Saints are projected to be Superbowl contenders. Pat Swilling will become the Defensive Player of the Year, and all eyes are on the Saints. As you’re probably already guessing if you’re unfamiliar with the game, the Saints were upset by the visiting Falcons, 27-20. The Saints would take another 9 years before winning their first playoff game.
This stink is something that Saints fans would remember for sometime. As a young Saints fan at the time, my memories of the vent are vague, thankfully, so I do not bear the same hurt that other fans do. These are the types of games that Saints and Falcons fans enjoy in every contest. Every game has playoff intensity. Every game has meaning. I touched on the recent history a bit earlier, but since the mid 2000s when both teams have gone through a regime change. In 2006, the Saints brought in Sean Payton as head coach. In 2008, the Falcons brought in Mike Smith. Since 2006, 10 games between the Falcons and Saints have finished with only a one score margin. Of those, 4 have been three points are less and numerous games have ended on last second drives (both in failures and successes for each team).
Last year, the beginning of the season set the tone for both teams for the entire year. In one of my favorite Falcons vs Saints games, we saw passion and electricity matched only by January football. The Saints would win in dramatic fashion and get into the playoffs. The Falcons, predicted to be the division winners before the year started, would collapse and spin into a free fall they could not recover from.
For over 45 years fans between these two teams have grown more and more in both respect and hate towards the other franchise. Now, in 2014, we have a new generation of fans growing up in this rivalry who are witnessing the feuding between these two NFC giants. I had the opportunity to speak to both new and old fans for their opinions on some of the greatest games in history through social media (mainly Reddit). Many fans pointed to 2006, the game where the Saints game back to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Both sides have strong words and opinions on that moment.
“I don’t care what that game “meant for the city”. Atlanta fans were suffering from a complete collapse of the team that year, from offseason to finish. We were already beaten to the ground, bleeding profusely – and the national media pissed on our wounds in my eyes. All of the talk of “this ones for the city” only made the sting even worse when our Head Coach ditched us without even the dignity to face the players.”
“ I remember the day my hate for the saints took a colossal spiral, it was the first game back in the Superdome after hurricane Katrina and i was a little boy excited to watch Mike Vick and the Falcons spoil the “Aints party”, but no, Steve Gleason decided to block our punt, we went on to lose the game on national tv, my mom had to tell me the game was scripted because of catastrophe New Orleans had gone through, and it was just an overall terrible experience that I’ll never forget and was basically the start of my hate for the Saints“
“(My favorite memory is) obviously the Steve Gleason moment, and, like any rivalry, the fact that the competition has been so fierce over the last few years.”
“Look no further than the statue in front of the dome.”
Young fans, such as myself and those who commented above, are continuing the war that has been raging on for decades. The recent growth in the rivalry can be attributed to both team’s increased success. There have even been moments where players and coaches have made it a point to to “do a little more” to beat the other team. Look back to 2011 when Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s passing yardage record. The Saints had the game in the bag (a little over two minutes remaining with a very large lead) and yet they decided to break the record in front of the Saints’ home crowd and against their division rivals. It is a moment that Falcons fans still scoff in disgust over.
Then, a year later, the Falcons not only snapped Drew Brees’ record streak of TD passes originally set by Johnny Unitas, but forced five interceptions from the future HOFer as well. Moral victories sometimes are better than ones with playoff implications, at least, when it is between teams with rivalries as strong as these are. Each fanbase also has things to hold over the other team’s head. The Falcons have won 4 of the 6 overtime matches between the teams with all of the wins coming in New Orleans. Conversely, the Saints have beaten Atlanta 5 of the 6 Monday Night Football matchups on national television. With both teams on the up and only seeming to get better as time goes on, the rivalry will continue to grow.
A good rivalry is one that grows stronger as time goes on. We’re witnessing that here in the south with these two teams. The fans of both of our teams put it perfectly:
Saints fan, John Vella:
“ This rivalry goes back to the earliest days of both franchises. We’re like a pair of feuding siblings. We entered the league just 1 year apart from each other, and at first, only played against each other in the pre-season. All that changed in 1970, when they put us in the same division, and we’ve been fighting ever since. We’ve knocked each other out of the playoff hunt several times. we’ve shared players and coaches – Morten Andersen, Bobby Hebert, Joe Horn, and Wade Phillips. We’ve had heartbreaking, close games against each other year in and year out, but above all… they cheat, they leave the seat down, they take cheap shots, they put the milk jug back in the fridge with only a couple of sips left, and above all… they suck!!!!!”
Falcons fan, Coug:
“ My favorite rivalry in football. besides the packers/bears i feel like ours is always insanely heated and ridiculously even every time we play. Its always a toss up when we play each other and usually goes down to the last touchdown/field goal. I love the intensity between us. The best part about it is we always try to one up each other and really don’t care that much about the other teams in the division. They might as well rename the NFC South the Saints and Falcons conference and those two other guys. The passion between our fanbases is so thick when we play its like slicing butter. Its almost palpable how serious we are when the game comes around. Another thing I like about our rivalry is it doesn’t stop after the game. I know people are going to deny this but we are obsessed with each other, making sure one of us is getting the raw end of any deal if one of us has anything to say about it.Why do I love the rivalry so much? Because its just good, old fashioned hate .”
A storied rivalry, heated, spiteful and downright nasty at times. The Falcons and the Saints will continue to face each other on the field and their fans will continue to face each other in the streets, the stadiums and in every medium they can find. There is a mutual respect and disdain that we hold for each other. Its one of my favorite parts of football, and it is why I love our division so much. Thanks for reading everyone! A very special thank you to everyone who participated in interviews and provided your memories of both teams. As always, please leave your comments, critiques and all around banter and God bless!
PS: Who Dat!